SEARCH FOR WATER ON MOON AMONG NASA’S COMMERCIAL LANDER GOALS

WASHINGTON- NASA on Thursday announced teams of companies that will compete for a $2.6 billion pot of contracts to send scientific instruments to the moon during the next decade for missions including the search for water ice on the lunar surface.

“We believe there are hundreds of millions of tons of water ice on the surface of the moon,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the press conference at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., when he announced teams led by U.S. companies that will compete for various robotic lander mission contracts. 

NASA provided few details about potential contracts for this Commercial Lunar Payload Services program and will begin discussing more details with these companies during a meeting in December. The search for compounds containing hydrogen, oxygen and water on the moon “is expected to be a high priority” for these lunar missions, but that will likely not be discussed in the initial discussions in December, a NASA spokeswoman told me. The list of these U.S. companies is available on NASA’s website.

This start of a competition to send robotic landers to the moon comes months after NASA in April cancelled its Resource Prospector mission to build a rover to search for water ice on the lunar surface. The agency is developing instruments to prospect for water at areas including the moon’s polar regions that could be carried on landers built by other companies or nations, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said during the press conference.

Some of the companies NASA announced to compete for contracts have expressed interest prospecting for water. Massachusetts-based Draper, for instance, is leading a team of competitors and providing navigation software for a lander designed by its teammate ispace, a Tokyo-based startup. That team is waiting for details from NASA about the agency’s plans for lunar payload contracts, but ispace has a separate goal of eventually launching probes to locate water ice on the moon, where it could then be processed into fuel for rockets.

“We have already started developing our lander,” Takeshi Hakamada, the founder of ispace told me in an interview about his company’s plans for prospecting. “We are planning a step-by-step approach by landing on the middle latitude of the surface, then we gradually plan to land in the polar area to explore for lunar resources.” 

Lockheed Martin, another contestant, is also taking steps to prepare for landers to search for water on the moon. The company in October hired Joe Landon as a vice president for its lander team from his previous job as the chief financial officer of Planetary Resources, a Seattle-based company  founded to eventually prospect water from asteroids, where he worked since 2010. The Lockheed Martin lander would be capable of searching for water at the polar regions of the moon where ice is located in the permanently shadowed areas, Landon told me, but he emphasized the lander would “go where NASA wants to go, depending on the objectives of the mission.”

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